I bought him on a whim.
Crystalline blue eyes stared at me almost accusingly as I purchased him. The rest of the time, as he was transported and the deal finalized, they were disturbingly blank and devoid of emotion. His ginger hair had been cut sloppily and close to the scalp. His lean, muscled body was scarred and tense. He had the look of a wild animal, with his legs slightly bent - as if ready to bolt - and with dried blood splattered on his skin. Skin was pale under the layer of dirt, probably because he was kept in a kennel until it was time for him to fight.
He was a gladiator. A man who fought other men for the sport of others. He was very, very good at it. After my first few questions, his former owner told me something of how he had become a slave, and what little history he had. He certainly hadn't been born a slave - not with his skills.
He had been caught on an Outer Rim world. He had just been sitting in the middle of the street, oblivious to his surroundings. He hadn't eaten in days and wasn't usually responsive, the slavers were told. The locals had named him crazy Ben. When the slavers approached him, curious, they were told that he was extremely dangerous and not to bother him. So they were cautious in their approach. But when they put the slave collar on him he didn't react; he was completely docile as they led him along back to their ship. They laughed, thinking how easy a capture it had been. The man was physically fit and only in his early thirties. He would get a good price on the market.
Then one of the slavers had casually hit him. 'Ben' moved so fast that the slaver never even saw it coming; he was alive one minute and had a snapped neck the next.
Then he became completely docile again, before the slavers even had the chance to react. He didn't follow up on what he had done; he just went back to blankly staring. The slavers - quicker than most - realized that their capture was actually mentally damaged in some way and only responded to a direct threat. Otherwise, he was virtually catatonic. Utterly docile.
He did well at the arena, a place of continual violence. A little too well, perhaps - as he was sold to me.
I was the widow of a wealthy man. My husband had controlling stocks in the Kuat Shipyards and the like. Since we had had no children, I was the sole inheritor of his estate. We never had the energy for a baby and it was too late by the time I considered it. A decade together and not once did we talk of children. When he died I found myself depressed and I slowly made friends with the wives and mistress of wealthy, highly suspect men. Their wives and mistresses, I soon learned, were just as amoral as their husbands were.
My girlfriends had heard of the arena and convinced me to go. Jaded and depressed, I agreed to go and watch death for fun, something that I like to think I would not have ordinarily done. We went to Tezen, which was renowned for their arenas and slave markets. We watched in drunken bemusement in a high hovering box as the slaves fought and killed each other. The sands became soaked with blood as the fights went on over the day.
The arena was a large circular area; tradition, we were told. Huge stands were built up around the sand interior, or the pit as it was sometimes called. It was dry, hot, and had pungent smells drifting around the area.
We toasted at each death; and why not, when barbaric ways are all that we have left? The Empire killed it's citizens so ruthlessly that I was surprised there are any left and the Outer Rim got more and more brutal as each day went by. Even the so-called civilized space of the Inner Rim was slowly degenerating into death and misery. The state of the galaxy seemed to mirror my melancholy.
The galaxy wasn't the only thing degenerating. I think my mind was as well.
Then Ben was thrown into the bloody arena, still full of the dead and dying. The crowd, obviously familiar with him, cheered and booed. Some seemed to like him ... and some did not.
Ben did nothing as the managers waited for the crowd to calm down. He looked at the sky somewhat absentmindedly, half naked and barefoot in the burning sand. He did not cower in terror as some did, or show off for the frenzied crowd as others did. Gazing at the sky as if it was a new thing, something he had never seen before, he almost looked like a lost child in an unfamiliar place.
They soon set the wild animals loose. There were four of them; two were feline beasts of some type, though much larger and ferocious than usual. The other two were giant arachnid beasts twice as tall as he was. Their gray leathery skin looked odd against the faintly pinkish sand of the arena. The feline beasts' slashed coats stood up well against the arena, which was probably one of the reasons why they were chosen.
Two of the animals decided the dead and dying - still lying on the field, as they would the rest of the day - would be easier prey than something kicking and fighting. The other two converged on the listless man who stared at them blankly.
Then he moved. The arachnid-like beast went first; he snapped two of its four legs while he went through something that seemed to be a set movement of some kind, using his arms and legs to do it. He ripped off one of the legs while the creature bled onto the sands and stabbed it in the eye with its own limb. It died instantly.
The snarling feline was next. He moved even faster with this one than with the arachnid. He ducked out of the way when it leaped for him and somehow managed to hit it in the ribs. The creature yelped and rolled away. Furious now, it leaped at him again. He rolled underneath it and came up behind it. Before it could react to the new development, he grabbed its throat and ripped it out with his bare hands, with both grace and ruthlessness. Dark red blood splattered on him as veins were torn. The creature collapsed.
I expected him to leave it there to die slowly, or perhaps torture it. Most of the fighters did such things - it got the crowd riled up. But this one didn't. He walked over to the dying creature and snapped its neck. I thought I saw him do with sadness, but I convinced myself that I had imagined it.
The fight lasted all of two minutes. Ben was declared the winner, of course. As the crowd booed at how quickly the fight had ended, I realized that was why he was both popular and unpopular. He always won too quickly for their tastes. Guards walked out from behind hidden, closed doors in the side of the pit and took him away, carefully not touching him. Presumably he was brought back to the kennels in which all the arena slaves were kept.
I was fascinated, and so I bought myself my first slave.
I owned a luxury yacht. I don't know a much about my ships, but my dead husband did and the one I had - he had it custom built - was apparently quite a beauty. I used it to traipse around the galaxy in my boredom. I paid my pilot well to stay out of my way, him in his small quarters and me in mine. We were currently heading nowhere. My friends - if you could call them such - had gone their separate ways after Tezen. They would meet up with me again, I knew, when they got bored and decided to drag me along to some other splendid vacation spot. Guiltily, I knew that I let them drag me along to such places. Buying Ben surely proved that I was just as immoral as them. Perhaps it also proved a disturbing lack of concern for my own safety.
I sat on the comfortable, slightly worn chair in my lounge. My lounge consisted mostly of a few comfortable tan couches and chairs - one of which I was sitting in - with wood paneling and a nice, fully stocked bar. The room was not large; while comfortable the ship was of no great size.
Ben played with the carpet, head lowered. It was soft and fluffy; when you stepped onto it, you sank into it up to your ankle. Ben's fascination with it was childlike. We had just gotten back to my ship; Ben was still dressed in only loose pants and he definitely needed a shower. That became even more obvious against the white, flawless carpet he sat on.
I took a sip of my alcoholic drink, the taste bitter but smooth to my tongue. It was a nice year and after only one drink I was already feeling the effects. I felt a smile tug at my lips for no particular reason.
I turned my attention to my purchase. Took another sip as he did nothing. He didn't seem aware of my stare, or even how filthy he was. I thought about getting him cleaned up, but since the pilot was the only person on board, I would have to do it myself. I was fairly certain that he didn't bathe himself, or at least wasn't used to it. The guards on Tezen had used a high-pressure hose and kept their distance.
"So where do you come from, Ben?" I asked idly, not really expecting a response.
I didn't get one. He looked up and around, as if he realized someone was talking but couldn't figure out who it was. That blank confusion made me feel pity. What had happened to such a skilled fighter to make him lose his mind so completely?
Absentmindedly, I began to talk. "I'm from a planet Csh - Casheen." I nodded to myself. "That's right. Casheen. Met my husband there while training to be a philosopher." I laughed. "Me! Good old Dela, a philoshoper." My words were beginning to slur. But what did it matter? Only Ben was there, and he certainly didn't care. "Married him and gave up my career -" I lifted my glass. "Not that I was going to have mush of one."
Ben seemed to be focusing more intently on me now. Or perhaps it was my imagination.
"I did love him, you know," I said, focusing on him with drunken intensity. "It kind of fell apart, after the first few years. But I still loved him, it was just everything else, our relationship, his job, that was messed up."
I sighed deeply. "Maybe it was the wealth, after everything fell apart," I muttered, gazing at the wall - or whatever you call those things in ships. I frowned, suddenly irritated. "Deck? No, that's the floor. Damn." What was it? I tried to take another sip of my drink but realized it was gone. I frowned, reached for the bottle.
I jumped, dropping the bottle. It landed on the soft floor without breaking. But on the floor it seemed to be an impossible distance away. I looked at it for a long moment.
I stared up at Ben, who had spoken. He stared blankly past my shoulder.
"What did you say?" I whispered. "What did you say?" I repeated, louder. No response. "What is this, some kind of game?"
When no response was forthcoming, I leaped up from my chair, swaying for a moment. Then I picked up the bottle and threw it at Ben's head with a scream of rage. I didn't know why I raged. But then, why did it matter? I was drunk, drunks do stupid things.
He ducked and it hit the wall - bulkhead - behind him with a loud shattering noise. Then he just continued to sit there, not even looking at me. What, no trying to kill me? I found myself disappointed. I snorted.
I clumsily wiped my face with the back of my hand, breathing hard. Then my breaths began to come in huge, hitching sobs. I sank to my knees, and then backed up against my chair. Suddenly I felt overwhelmingly depressed and I wept for the loss of my husband - and for no reason at all. Two years ago and I still can't get over it.
Sinking into a mire of self-disgust and misery, I almost didn't feel the arms that gently pulled me into an embrace, my head on his shoulder and his arms across my back. I leaned against Ben, not even caring that he was dirty and half naked. A hand stroked my hair and without quite realizing how, all my dark emotions drained away.
I let myself stay in his comforting - if surprising - embrace for a long time. But life is no fairy tale and I eventually shifted away from him. He let his hands fall loosely to his sides. The eyes, pale against his skin, no longer seemed quite as blank, but the emotionless quality in them still disturbed me. As did the fact that he had comforted me.
I touched his cheek gently. His eyes drifted shut and he leaned into my touch. I watched with undeniable fascination and stroked his cheek with my hand, smudging the dirt. He sighed, his eyelids fluttering.
It went no further than that as a few weeks passed. Ben was like pet, knowing when something was wrong but not really understanding why. He would come to me, seeming to always know when I was upset or drunk, even when I was not in his presence. The pilot left him alone entirely, as were my orders. To my relief, he seemed to have figured out how to bathe by himself. But I had to make him eat. Otherwise, it seemed like a forgotten issue for him. He slept on the floor, either not recognizing the bed for what it was or not wanting to sleep on it.
I was having a nice cold drink in my bedroom - cabin? - when I got the message. I rose from my bed, a large, luxurious one that was completely white. It looked startling pure against the wine colored floor and walls. I had spilled some alcohol on my bed, leaving a stain that coordinated with the rest of the room. It didn't matter. I could afford to replace it.
I got up unsteadily, dressed in faded blue pajamas. Hopefully it wouldn't require an immediate response; I was not in any state of being able to think. I went over the commstation and clicked receive. To my surprise, it was a text message. A letter.
From the Empire.
Despite my dazed state, I was worried. I opened the file.
Adela Dalaan Medorn,
It is my duty to inform you that your brother, Alec Dalaan, was executed for treason against the Empire, by order of His Highness Emperor Palpatine. This royal order was carried out two days ago by a firing squad on Coruscant. Your brother was put on trial and convicted of helping dissidents ...
I ignored the rest. I stumbled away from the commstation in shock. My younger brother was dead.
"No!" I hissed. Tears fell from eyes and slid over trembling lips. "No," I moaned. My little brother. He had joined the Empire with some idealistic notion of helping the galaxy under Palaptine's New Order. My sweet brother - my only family left after the war, in which all my friends and distant family had died. My only family after the death of my husband, who had been connected with the Empire and had died under suspicious circumstances. The thought kept resounding in my head: my brother is dead.
I smashed my palm into the commstation. Made of sterner stuff than my hand, it didn't break or shatter. Instead, my palm hurt. Growling in frustration, I began ripping my room apart. I threw a chair at a bulkhead clumsily, my attempt mostly unsuccessful, as the chair was too heavy for me to lift properly. I ripped my bedding to pieces and threw my clothing everywhere, out of the closet and onto the mess I had already made. Huge sobs clenched my chest as I did so.
I didn't realize Ben was there until he spoke my name. "Dela."
I whirled and stared at him. His eyes were soft with something like sympathy. For once, those eyes were full of emotion. As if my pain could stir him out of his catatonia, even if the possibility of his own death in the arena could not.
I clenched my fists, wanting to regain control of myself. I looked at the mess I made and knew that I had gained no release, no satisfaction from letting loose my rage. My body trembled with the force of it and I hated myself for my lack of self-control.
Ben slowly walked to me, each step somehow calming me. By the time he had reached my side I was ready to practically melt into his arms. So that's exactly what I did. His coarse tunic was rough against my face - he seemed to prefer his clothing that way, I didn't know why. My slave was such a mystery to me - almost as much a mystery as why I had bought him in the first place.
"The will of the Force," Ben murmured into my hair, as if responding to my thought. We were actually the same height, but when I sank into his grip, I did so literally. He was all that held me up.
He fell to his knees and I went with him. "My brother," was all I said, wondering if Ben would even understand. If his comment about the Force - a hokey religion if I ever saw one - was just another one-time response.
"It will be all right," he said softly, instantly dispelling that notion.
I felt such serenity in his arms. I always did, I realized. His mere presence calmed me down and I didn't know why. I was about to ask him about it when something interrupted me.
The commstation beeped.
Another message? I struggled out of Ben's grip and he let me go. Feeling somewhat dazed and confused, I walked over to it, figuring it was probably just one of my friends asking about my new slave. I felt a sense of unreality as I approached the station. Getting a message now just seemed so ... awkward.
I opened the message, yet another text-only one. As I read my rage came back even stronger, fueled by indignation. My body tensed, suddenly taut with furious energy.
I turned away from the commstation and message, wisely not hitting it this time as I knew that it would be a wasted effort. I began to pace furiously with my fists clenched by my sides. I walked past the fragments of my once elegant room, now in disarray, without noticing the damage.
Finally, I released my fury in a vocalization. "Damn that Palpatine!" I screamed, halting in the middle of my bedroom. My face felt curiously stiff.
Ben flinched back, a strangely thoughtful expression passing over his face for a moment. Then he just went blank. I ignored his reaction, too deep in my own pain and fury to notice or care.
"Damn Sith Lord, I hope he burns in hell," I muttered, raising my hand to my face. It shook as I clumsily pulled my dark hair out of my face. I didn't notice as my rough action tore out tiny clumps of hair. The pain seemed fitting; it matched what was inside of me.
"Sending me - me - an invitation to some damn ball?" I shrieked, my voice breaking at the last word. I laughed, the sound putting me on edge. Palpatine truly did cater to the powerful and wealthy, which I suppose I was. Not a good idea to try and do that, however, when you've ordered the execution of that someone's brother.
A strange, mewling noise interrupted my thoughts. My feet rooted in the thick carpet, I turned my head to my left slowly.
Ben was curled up into a fetal position. He was the one making the strange mewling noise - not me, as I had first thought. His body trembled; I could barely see it, but it was there. His eyes were wide and staring, the blue color looking flat. His muscles twitched as if some violent action was threatening to be let loose.
I grabbed a glass and threw it at him.
I was slammed into the wall with stunning force. It took me a long moment to realize I was no longer where I had once been. My hands clumsily fell around me and I grasped for something to help me up. My hands met only the smooth bulkhead. My vision clearing, I looked at Ben. He was still in the same place and I wondered dazedly how I had gotten to the wall.
He was crying. "I'm sorry." He kept whispering the words as he rocked back and forth while holding himself tightly. His eyes were squeezed shut and tears slowly leaked out. The trembling was more visible now, but it seemed less violent, as if he were no longer trying to control himself. As if it was no longer necessary.
I got to my knees, my head still throbbing. I tentatively touched the back of my head and then drew my hand back to see if there was any blood. There wasn't. I slowly licked my lips and remembered that Ben had been a gladiator. A man trained to kill, to be ruthless.
"No," Ben whispered, as if in denial, seemingly answering nothing.
I gathered my courage and crept to him. I knelt by him and gingerly touched his short, fuzzy hair. When he didn't react, I grew bolder and gave it a sweeping caress. I grieved for my brother, but I had the feeling that Ben was grieving for something long past.
I put my arm around his shoulders and drew him to me, offering comfort as he had for me not long ago. He tensed for a long, nervous moment and then relaxed, permitting the contact.
When his head rested under my chin, the words seemed to spill out of him without control.
"I never suspected - never knew - oh how could I have been so blind? I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Padme ..."
"Ben," I whispered. Whether I was trying to gain his attention or something else I don't know.
"She was pregnant, you know," Ben said with a sudden calm. "Twins. Less than two weeks along. And he killed her and them - not that he intended to, that, I think, was an accident."
I paused. Just what was I hearing?
"He reacted without thinking - he was fighting me, and when she came to stop him, he killed her on reflex. The lightsaber went right through her. She didn't even look surprised ..."
"I couldn't do anything," he whispered. "I couldn't save her. And Anakin just lost it. I was looking at her when he knocked me out, I don't know why he did that."
"You're a Jedi," I whispered, thing suddenly falling into place. The reluctance with which he killed. How my pain could affect him when the possibility of his own death did not even gain a reaction. It suddenly hit me that, at times, he had reacted to my thoughts, not my actions.
"He was my Padawan," Ben whispered. "And then he fell, and was Palpatine's apprentice."
I could only listen in silence as a strange, disjointed story was unfolded.
"I don't know how it started. Not exactly. Anakin was friends with him, I think, for years. Without me knowing. My Padawan associated with a Sith Lord, and I didn't have a clue. Some Jedi I was. And then Padme, he married her. I think he did love her, twisted as even that became."
I stroked his hair silently. His body was shaking violently now and I held him tighter, as if I could dispel what haunted him by brute force.
"I don't know why he didn't take the opportunity and kill me that day. I expected him to, in his anger. But he didn't. He brought me to him instead." Ben reflexively held me tighter, almost bruising me. "They tortured me," he whispered.
"But that's over," I whispered.
"When the Temple was destroyed, they burned the memory - all those screams, the tearing of the Force - into my brain. They forced their way in and made me relive my Master's death over and over. I begged them to stop. I hated myself for it, but I begged. It hurt so much. They broke me, drove me to insanity until I saw things. Horrible things."
I said nothing. I might be a selfish drunk, but I instinctively understood that Ben had to try to rid himself of those things that tormented him.
"I don't remember what Vader was doing to me that time," he said softly, pausing as his breath hitched.
Vader. The name of Palpatine's pet killer.
"But I was so skinny by then, I slipped out of the restraints." A long pause. "I snapped his neck as he stood over me, gloating. Before he could react. He didn't even have time to get angry - just gave me this blank look of surprise."
The facts bombarded me. Vader had disappeared. Vader had been Ben's Padawan. Vader had been called ... Anakin.
"I killed my Padawan. Dela, I killed my Padawan," he whispered, the soft words barely audible. But I could hear the horror and self-hatred in them. And confusion, as the words had seemed to spill out of him by their own volition.
His former Padawan or not, Vader had been an evil individual. He had killed millions. Not many would blame Ben for his actions. I certainly didn't.
"Vader deserved what he got," I replied, my tone very firm.
Ben drew away from me for a moment, so he could look me in the face. His eyes were no longer emotionless, but the brokenness remained.
"I deserved what he got," Ben said sadly, tears slipping from his eyes even as he turned away.
I shook my head violently, taking his chin in hand so he would be forced to look at me. "No." A deep breath. If he could not care for himself, could he care for me? "If that had happened, where would that have left me?"
And I kissed him. His lips were warm and I felt his sudden intake of breath. Surprise or passion, it didn't matter.
"Perhaps we are both broken," I whispered, feeling tears slip down my own cheeks. He drew me into a hug and I felt his lips brush my neck tenderly.
We both cried for what we had lost.
I touched Ben's rough cheek. He lay in bed on his side, right next to me, eyes shut, his face relaxed in sleep's deceptive calmness. His chin had the beginnings of a beard. It didn't make him look savage or dangerous, though. At least not in his sleep. Now, he looked like a man driven to the brink of whatever sanity he had left. The signs of his emotions earlier told me that. There were faint tear streaks on his cheeks and gentle lines of guilt and misery around his eyes.
His very roughness made him look out of place in my bedroom. My bed was very soft and had a comforter that was white and very feminine. The rest of the room defined plush: large pillows, thick carpet, and dark maroon walls with a faint pattern inlaid in them.
I rolled over onto my back. I let my fingers trail through my long, dark brown hair, spread out above my head. It matched the color of my eyes. I sighed. I was not one of those stunningly beautiful woman. I was all right, I suppose, my features good looking but rather plain. Ben had stunning eyes and beautiful ginger hair - when the dirt wasn't too thick.
What was I thinking? I was worried about how attractive I was to my slave? I groaned. Whether I admitted it to myself or not, Ben was not really my slave. He didn't act like one and, inexperienced as I am in such matters, I am pretty sure I wasn't acting like an owner.
I jerked, startled. I then slowly turned my head towards Ben. My neck was stiff, as if it didn't want to cooperate.
He hadn't moved other than to open his eyes. "You're awake. You need more sleep," he said softly, a concerned look making the color of his eyes a gentle baby blue.
It was such a - husbandly thing to say that I laughed.
He blinked at me, puzzled, and I laughed harder, my legs curling up. I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling the softness of my pajamas. I felt curiously happy and lighthearted, though I could not fathom why. My thoughts were slow and drifted aimlessly.
I reached out and took one of his hands. I felt the callused fingertips; spread my gentle touch to the palm. He had such rough hands.
Palpatine. I don't know why that thought entered my head, but it came with startling abruptness and brought me to full awareness. I abruptly let go of his hand and rolled off the bed, my lightheartedness vanishing. I got to my feet, sinking down to my ankles in the carpet. For some reason, that infuriated me and I glared at the carpet. My body tensed until it was almost painful, my muscles demanding action.
When Ben had had his breakdown and confession, I had been forced to concentrate on him. It was a welcome distraction and one that I had embraced eagerly. But the fact remained that my brother was dead. And then there was Palpatine.
"Dela?" Ben's voice came quietly. To my distant surprise, it held no concern. Just a calm blankness.
"I want him dead." The words fell from my lips without my thinking about them.
"Many do, myself included," Ben replied, his voice still even.
I turned to look at him, thoughtful. He was sitting up now. I let my gaze travel over his body, from the firm muscles of his abdomen to his face. I stepped forward, my movement graceful. My own gracefulness surprised me, as did the homicidal thoughts accompanying it, but I left no thought for that.
"Then why didn't you?" I asked, setting my palms on the bed and leaning forward.
"It would fail. For that matter, it would be suicide," Ben replied, his eyes narrowing. His sat up straight and for a second, his entire body radiated a lethalness that I instinctively backed away from.
I took two steps away from the bed, legs shaking slightly. Ben looked down, his head lowered. "It would be suicide," he said softly, relaxing. And for that moment I could see him as a Jedi, head bowed and humble.
I laughed very quietly, the tone of it giving me chills. "And that would be a bad thing?" I whispered. I stared at him challengingly.
He kept looking down for a minute and then gazed up at me. "Not necessarily," he agreed. A very faint smile touched his lips- the first I had ever seen. There seemed to be something dark and disturbing about it, with a touch of sadness.
"Didn't the Jedi try?" I asked, slowly beginning to pace back and forth, keeping my gaze steady on him. My anger was no longer hot, but had turned into something cold and calculating.
Ben shook his head, puzzled. "Many faced him."
I stopped, thinking of the exact words he had used, remembering how Jedi only kill when attacked first and there is no other option. "Why face him? Why not just take a sharpshooter's rifle and kill him?"
Ben shook his head. "He would - "
"Or a bomb? He wouldn't be able to deflect that," I continued.
Ben stared at me, his eyes pale. "That would be murder."
I stared at him in disbelief. "Your point being?"
"I don't know," he muttered, dropping his gaze. He fiddled with my comforter. When he looked up at me, I saw that tears had silently slipped down his face. "He would deserve it," Ben whispered, looking away with a thoughtful yet sad expression on his face.
"Damn right he would," I replied, folding my arms. I stared at Ben, trying to discern his thoughts. It was like the fact that he would consider such a thing horrified him. But why? It was not as if ...
"I guess that's true," Ben said, looking me in the eye suddenly. "I'm not really a Jedi anymore. Jedi don't have mental breakdowns."
I stepped back again, unnerved. "You are what you are," I said matter-of-factly.
"And what is that? To you?" he asked, leaning forward.
I consciously resisted the urge to step back. "You're Ben," I replied unsteadily. I raised my chin, refusing to show that I was intimidated. Ben merely looked at me, and I realized again that even if he wasn't a Jedi, he still had all the abilities of one.
What was Ben to me? "I don't know. I simply know that right now, here we are," I said honestly, knowing he would be able to pick up on the trail of my thoughts.
He held out his hand and I walked back to the bed, taking it. He spoke softly, sadness mingling with some unreadable emotion in his eyes. "That's enough."
"Where are we going?" Ben asked softly. I could feel his breath in my ear as he spoke; he was curled up at my back, a warm, soothing presence that I wanted to push back into to, to feel more. We had slept the night in each other's arms, though it went no further than that. Sleep was all we had wanted or needed.
I opened my eyes, staring at the faint pattern of swirls from the wall coverings on the bulkhead. Bulkhead. Who knew not knowing that word would change so much? Buying Ben had changed me - I was not certain how, not yet, but I was certain that it had.
"Dela," Ben said, more insistently but in the same soft tone.
"Hmm?" I said, interrupted from my thoughts. I squinted, thinking. My hands curled around the comforter in a reflexive, sleepy gesture. "The ship? I don't know," I said. "No, wait, some Core World."
My own words sank into my brain for a long moment and I blinked reflexively. I sat up, letting the comforter fall off my shoulders. Even with my pajamas on, I was still slightly cold from the sudden absence of the comforter, warm from my body heat. I frowned, shivering for a moment. Then I shrugged my shoulders, dismissing it.
I looked at Ben, turning my head and wrapping my arms around myself. "Near Coruscant, actually. I was ... going to do something." I frowned again and shook my head, my eyes fluttering closed for a moment. "I can't remember."
"The amount you've been drinking," Ben said softly. His blue eyes stared at me - intently. Like he was soaking up my every action, absorbing it. It was a disconcerting feeling.
My shoulders twitched at his words and I threw the comforter off of me - and incidentally at Ben. He barely blinked and didn't move. I swung my feet off the bed and got up unsteadily. I stretched the muscles in my back, tensed and then relaxed my arms and legs. I eventually turned to face him, hoping for a change of subject.
I focused fully on him. It felt odd to see him stretched out on my bed, under the covers. Unreal, somehow.
"What are you thinking of?" I asked him.
His response surprised me. "Palpatine," he said blandly, his expression not changing a whit.
I drew back, nonplussed. "Why?"
His gaze skittered away. Absentmindedly, he began to smooth out the comforter. The restless movement of his hands told me of his nervousness, though otherwise he showed nothing. To show nothing was a Jedi trait, I had heard. "I was thinking about what you said yesterday."
A rush of dark emotions went through me at his words. I paused thoughtfully, almost reveling in them for a moment. Simply imagining it gave me a thrill. "Wouldn't that be - satisfying?" I said softly, smiling faintly - in a way that showed no amusement, I'm sure.
He met my gaze levelly. "Killing him? Yes." His eyes closed and his words were a deep throaty whisper. "Oh, yes." The words had a world of feeling behind them - anger, rage, and pain.
I felt a burst of inexplicable rage, but controlled it. "But it would fail. Isn't that what you said?" I snapped impatiently, tossing my head and clenching my jaw.
"Probably fail," Ben said softly, still not meeting my gaze, his eyes shut. Tiny nuances of emotion flickered across his face, as if he were having some internal argument. "Suicide, most likely, even if it did succeed."
"Could you do it?" I asked impulsively. I put a knee on the bed, kneeling down.
Ben's eyes snapped open. His mouth opened, then shut.
"You were a Jedi," I said, the words falling from my lips. "What powers did you have?"
His eyes searched my face, even the lines of my body as he spoke. Like he was trying to predict my reaction. "Little enough that would matter. Palpatine could counter them all. If I did do -" he stopped, a sudden thoughtful expression crossing his face.
I ignored his strange reaction. "Jedi die, don't they?" I asked musingly, sitting down with one leg crossed over the other. Many Jedi had died, if I recalled correctly. Executed as traitors to Palpatine's New Order. I leaned back, the movement soothing my muscles. "If Jedi can die ... can't Sith?"
"I killed one," Ben replied, a slight furrow appearing between his brows.
I looked down at him sharply, surprised. I seemed to be doing that a lot - looking down at him. I always seemed to be in a position to do so. I wondered why. Perhaps because Ben frightened me sometimes. I didn't ask when he had killed a Sith - it wasn't important. He could be referring to Vader, though I thought it was probably someone else.
Ben touched my thigh almost gingerly. "You really want him dead, don't you?" he asked, looking up at me sorrowfully. Ben was so strange sometimes - never reacting the way I thought he would. Why sorrow?
"Revenge," I replied simply, "is a powerful motivator."
He fingers traced some unknown pattern on my thigh, his eyes vacantly staring ahead. I felt strangely glad that gaze was not aimed at me - at least not directly. "I'd do it," he whispered, "for you." He lay his head down by me and my hands went through his hair almost of their volition. His body curled up and he kept his head down in an almost submissive manner.
"Oh, Ben," I whispered hoarsely. I knew how powerful such a statement was. Coming from him, coming from a Jedi. His child-like desire to please me brought tears to my eyes. Damaged indeed.
"I could not ask that of you - not knowing what you are. Revenge is of the dark side, is it not?" I asked faintly. I knew little of Jedi, but I knew that. "Is it not dark to fulfill another's desire for revenge as well?"
His words came like a faint breath, soft against my hand as I caressed his face, not even looking at him as he did not look at me, either. "Maybe I am dark for not caring."
I accepted the invitation. I thought about it a great deal, my thoughts ranging from anger to the ironic. In the end, I did it in a moment - I didn't even really make the decision, I simply acted. Accepted it.
Ben was lying next to me in bed as I sat and I had found myself fascinated with his hair. It was very short, perhaps a few centimeters in length. It was dark blond with a touch of red. I found myself looking forward to it growing out so I could play with it; a childish thing to think about, but there it was.
"How would we get in, even?" Ben murmured against my thigh.
My hand, lying on his hair, stopped caressing his head. We had been talking - absentmindedly - about killing Palpatine. I wondered how many other people had had such conversations.
As Ben sat up my hand slipped from his head. I found myself noting how graceful he was, even though he had not exercised since I had bought him. He stared at me, leaning on one arm. "Dela?"
"I have the invite," I said finally, after a long silence in which he gazed at each other, me thinking seriously about going to Palpatine's ball and him only the Force knows what.
Ben blinked, drawing back slightly. His back arched and then he sat up straight, his arms loose at his sides. He gazed down, a distant expression of concentration on his face. "I forgot," he said simply, a crease appearing between his eyebrows. He looked up at me with such suddenness I jumped.
I rolled my eyes at him in irritation.
To my surprise, he gave the faintest of smiles, a barely perceptible twitch of his lips. I gave him a huge grin in return, delighted to see him smile in genuine amusement. How could he make me feel this way? I felt like an adolescent with a first crush.
His smile - such as it was - faded. "I would do it if you asked it of me, Dela. I would try to kill him." He looked lost as he spoke, his eyes pleading for ... something. Something for me to give, perhaps. I could only gaze at him and guess his thoughts.
And I knew my answer to his unasked question. If he demanded an answer of me, I knew I could only tell the truth. I closed my eyes and rubbed them. Which is stronger - the desire for revenge or love? Was this love?
"Dela," he said softly. I opened my eyes and my hands fell to my sides. He looked so serene sitting there; his head held high, the blue eyes calm, hands resting on thighs and back straight. Almost a meditative posture. So different from mere days ago when he had been catatonic and child-like. Not that he was fully healed now but he was better than he had been.
"Yes," I whispered, hating myself. "Force help me, but yes."
Dolomar, Ben told me, was a good place to get what he needed. It was also convenient, since it was on the way to Coruscant. Dolomar was a crowded planet, though it was nowhere near as populated as Coruscant. There were as many street markets and dubious dealings on it as much as there were the wealthy and privileged to take advantage of such dark pleasures - some of which, I admitted to myself, I knew personally.
Smugglers and black markets, Ben told me, thrived in such times as these. The items he would need would be easy to find, especially with all the corruption so inherent in governments anymore. He said it in such a serious, knowing tone that I believed him immediately.
I reluctantly told Ben I would give him whatever cash he needed and we went to our separate rooms. We would be at Dolomar in the morning. Ben had silently given me a kiss on my cheek as he left.
I sighed and touched my cheek, remembering his touch. Memorizing it. The soft scrape of his callused fingertips as he touched my neck and the gentle pressure of his lips. Truth be told, I feared he would leave me permanently.
The pillow was soft against my cheek as I cried out my fears.
I woke late.
I stretched in bed, pointing my toes and reaching above my head with my arms, even as my mind tried to focus. After doing this, my body relaxed again and I snuggled into the warmth of my blankets, pulling it up to my chin.
Ben. My eyes snapped open. Was he gone yet? Had he come back? My worries of last night came back in a rush, causing me to feel a sense of panic. I sat up in bed, ignoring the goose bumps that appeared on my body as the cold air - as it was to me - hit. Taking a deep breath, I blinked slowly and then swung my legs over the side of my bed. My feet hit the floor with a thump as I slid off.
Yawning slightly, I crept out my door after peeking down the hallway. All I saw was the normal off white color of the carpet and the smooth, metal bulkheads. I took another deep breath, attempting to calm myself. Surprised, I breathed deeply.
No, I wasn't imagining things. Something was burning. I paused in the middle of the hallway, and then took off for the kitchen. I knew I had one, though I rarely used it, preferring to simply eat at a nearby planet or other, pre-made foods. Instinctively, I knew that was where the smell was coming from - and I had the bad feeling that it had something to do with Ben.
Finally, I reached the kitchen. The smooth tiled floor was cold against me feet and my toes curled automatically. I looked around at the metallic surfaces of the cooking appliances and the dark, wooden cabinets that were locked shut during flight. My eyes traveled to the stove, behind the kitchen island. A skillet was on it and the eggs were beginning to go from brown to black.
Frowning, I shut the stove off, staring down at the burned eggs. "Ben?"
A slight whimper and I whirled.
Ben was curled into a fetal position against the island. His feet scrambled for purchase, trying to push even further into the wall. His hands were curled into claws, his head ducked and his eyes wild. Beneath his white shirt I could see his chest heaving.
Slowly, as if the awareness was just draining out of him, Ben stopped moving. His blue eyes stared blankly beyond me. The eyes fluttered and his hands relaxed.
Licking my lips and silently wishing for my robe to warm me, I knelt on the hard floor, wincing at the action. "Ben?" I said again, trying to gain his attention. I tried to meet his eyes, but there was such blankness in them I could not.
Against my inner voice telling me that this was a dangerous man, I got to my hands and knees and got closer.
"Ben." Then, more loudly, my hand barely touching his face, I said it again, more firmly and loudly. "Ben!"
Nothing. Ben had reverted to his catatonic state.
"No, dammit," I muttered, clumsily getting to my feet. "I won't let you do this to yourself." My fist clenched in anger ... and fear. "I won't," I repeated to myself, somewhat more tearfully. I looked around, at the eggs and the kitchen. Something about them had thrown him back into this state. Some memory that he had been reminded of, perhaps. What had I been thinking in trying to help Ben? What did I know of healing?
Letting out a frustrated breath and holding back my tears out of sheer determination, I quickly glanced about the kitchen. Looking for something to save me - to save Ben. "Come on," I whispered fiercely to myself. "Do something!" I wrung my hands.
I tore open one of the cabinets, searching for some container. I finally found, a large, chipped bowl made of clay. I went over the sink, wincing at the coldness of the floor. I flipped the water on and put the bowl under it. I waited until it was filled with cool, slightly rippling liquid. I sat it on the counter, some of the water sloshing over the sides. Searching again, I found ice cubes and threw them in.
I looked at my creation dubiously. If this would not shock him out of this, nothing would.
Grimly, I walked over to Ben. My face set - and deliberately so, knowing what this would do to him - I crouched and hit Ben. The blow caught him across one cheekbone and immediately severe pain went through my hand into my wrist.
I didn't pause, however, and the bowl full of water and ice went right into his face.
Ben yelped and scrambled sideways, away from me. "N-no," he whispered, his teeth chattering.
I crept closer to him. "Ben?"
"N-no, please. Please stop," he said again, shaking his head at something I could not see. Little droplets of water came loose from his hair to land on me.
It was as I had feared. I had shocked him out of his fugue, all right - right into a memory of being tortured. My husband had once told me that such shocks as sudden cold water were used to torture people, to keep them awake for long periods or shake them out of the bliss of unconsciousness. The fugue that Ben had been in was similar to that. Guiltily, I wondered if I should have done it or if I should have left him in the peace of his own mind.
I touched his shoulder, massaging. Trying to get some kind of reaction besides gibbering fear.
Dull, blue-gray eyes focused on me. "Dela?" he whispered.
I nearly wept for joy. Uncaring of his wetness or what he thought of me, I grabbed him roughly and pulled him into an embrace. Limply, he let me do so. Slowly, his hands came up to me and slowly got a death hold on my shirt. "Dela," he whispered again, the name no longer a question.
He was back. For good or ill, he was back. Away from wherever he had been. I wondered if it had been peaceful and I felt another stab of guilt.
"No, Dela," Ben said softly into my ear, pulling me closer. "You keep me sane ... and it was not peaceful there." He paused and drew me even closer, as if he wanted to melt into me. "Only here."
I closed my eyes. Was it true? Was I his only peace?
Answering my thoughts as he so often did, Ben whispered, "Yes."
"You'll be all right, then?" I asked, resisting the urge to wring my hands.
Ben and I stood at the hatch of my ship on Dolomar. He stood ready to leave, a knapsack over his shoulder. He wore a soft gray shirt and pants. I had cut his hair so it was even. He looked amazingly calm and normal standing there. He looked like man about to leave on a journey with the brown knapsack.
"Yes," Ben said simply, as he had told me all the way to the hatch. I had found myself fussing over him, adjusting his shirt, smoothing back his hair. He had smiled and permitted it. I got the feeling he even liked it.
I pulled my sweater tighter, against the chill of the cool Dolomar air. I tried to smile. "All right." Come back to me, I wanted to say, but I didn't.
He nodded. With a gentle smile he leaned forward and kissed me gently on the lips. I returned it, glad of the warmth of his breath. He was so gentle I barely felt the touch of his lips. His breath smelled faintly of some spice. Then he was drawing away. He left the ship without another word.
I shut the hatch. He's only going to get the supplies for killing Palpatine, I reminded myself. Not leaving permanently. But my mind returned to the memory of the morning, of seeing him on the floor in a fugue. I shuddered as I remembered the blankness in those eyes. It was so more disturbing to see that having seen the gentle warmth and kindness those eyes could exude.
I started going down the hallway, kicking off my shoes as I did so. Wandering aimlessly, I found myself in my lounge. After a moment's hesitation, I stepped inside, feeling how the carpet seemed to swallow my foot. I looked down at the floor, remembering how Ben had first spoken to me there. I walked over to that spot and knelt, taking fistfuls of the carpet into my hand.
He had told me what had caused him to slip back into his catatonia. As I had expected, it was a memory. I was surprised how innocent of a memory it was, however. Ben had often made breakfast for himself and Anakin, while they were Master and Padawan. It had been, Ben told me, his attempt to have some degree of closeness and trust between them. He didn't know why that memory had affected him so much.
It worried me how little it took for him to relapse.
I got up from the soft floor. I wiped my hands on my pants and realized I was constantly moving in some small way, pulling back my long hair, shifting my weight. I felt anxious, nervous. Not so much at Ben's ability to protect himself - even in the more dangerous areas of Dolomar I was sure he could handle himself - but at the thought of losing him. Would he come back? He had plenty of money. I did not care if he took my money but the idea of losing him frightened me. Disturbed me. I knew why I wanted Ben with me. I loved him, needed him. But he did not need me.
My attempt to help him had nearly ended in disaster. I had shocked him out of his catatonia only to bring him into something else: a memory of being tortured. He had come out of it on his own. What did he need me for?
I went to my personal bar and took out a bottle. I didn't look at the label. What did it matter? All of my drinks were good.
I didn't bother reaching for a glass, just took the bottle by its thin neck and went over to my oversized chair. I curled up in it and awkwardly took a swig from the bottle. It burned down my throat and I sighed, knowing soon that I would no longer be able to think about my worries and fears. It was a comforting thought.
I continued to drink. Soon my mind and everything else was fuzzy and indistinct. The image of the room blurred and I distantly realized that was a bad sign.
The bottle dropped from my hand, over the side of my chair. It hit the floor with a thump and a small amount of liquid dribbled out. My eyes drifted closed.
The next thing I knew someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes, blinking rapidly, and tried to shake whatever was holding me off.
It was Ben, kneeling in front of me and staring into my eyes. He still wore his gray clothing. I did not see the knapsack anywhere. His blue eyes were open wide and panicked. He shook me again.
"S'here," I muttered, my head dropping back as it he pulled me forward. I could not seem to support it. "Stopsh it."
He looked me over, from my feet to my eyes. His gaze then flickered over the empty bottle by the side of my chair. He picked it up, took in the small amount of stained carpet. He looked horrified, though in my confused state I couldn't understand why.
"You're drunk," he stated.
He picked me by my armpits. I struggled but stopped when he pulled me into his arms. He got a firm grip on my arms and I snuggled closer, closing my eyes. He shook me again and I opened my eyes.
"You can't do this," he told me, lifting my chin with his hand so I had to look at him. "You can't drink yourself to death."
Suddenly, I felt enraged. I hit him, clumsily. He let go of my arms and simply swatted away my ineffective blows. "How dare you!" I screamed, trying to hit harder. My blows became wilder. Nearly howling with rage, I got to my feet, swaying unsteadily.
Ben rose as well. "How dare I what?" he asked calmly, folding his arms.
He looked very intimidating that way. I stepped back unsteadily, but my balance was wrong. My heel hit the corner of my chair and I would have fallen had Ben not been fast and caught me by my shoulders.
Immediately my legs relaxed. Ben had to catch me again, his arms around my waist. I fell back limply, my body no longer obeying my commands. I snarled in rage at myself and started struggling again.
Ben touched my forehead and murmured, "Relax."
I went boneless in his arms. My mind was sluggish. I felt like I couldn't think.
He pushed my head against his shoulder as he knelt down. Then he sat back and put me in his lap, drawing my legs up to him. I shivered.
He whispered in my ear, "I'm going to force the toxins out of your body and take away your physical addiction."
Soothing warmth filled my body, slowly and gently, and all I could feel was him. Not knowing why, I started sobbing. Ben was here. I kept repeating that thought to myself. Ben was here.
"Yes, I'm here," he murmured, beginning a gentle rocking motion.
"I won't leave you, Dela. I swear I won't." He paused. "I love you. Please don't leave me," he whispered, those words - echoing mine - ringing in my head. His desperation faded into my own.
It was then that I knew. Even with my mind sluggish and my body not cooperating, I knew. I would not drink again, though I was sure I would be tempted. But I would not drink. I would not be an alcoholic.
Ben was here. He intended to always be. And I knew that if he were not here, I would likely not be either.
We sat in my lounge. A place that had become so central in my life - the events of my life, I should say. I curled up further into the couch, wanting to just sink into its soft comfort. I was foregoing my normal oversized chair so I could sit next to Ben. I let my fingers run along the white fabric of the couch as Ben played with tendrils of my brown hair, one arm over the couch to reach it where it lay over the back.
He sat next to me, looking perfectly sane and comfortable in dark beige clothing. I found myself very relieved at that. He had not had another relapse and it had been several days, so I allowed myself to consider the possibility he would not have another.
"Why are you playing with my hair?" I asked, looking at him curiously. I did not mind it; I found the intimacy strangely pleasant.
He shrugged, looking almost embarrassed. His fingers caressed the tip of a lock of hair and his eyes focused on it, as if not wanting to meet my eyes. "I don't know. I just like long hair." He glanced up at me shyly.
I smiled, absurdly pleased.
Ben said nothing more. His eyes closed while an expression of utter contentment graced his face. I found seeing such peace in his face somehow beautiful. My gaze drifted slowly to the floor, almost drowsily. Eventually, my eyes were drawn to a dark stain by the oversized chair I normally sat in. I realized it was from when I had almost drunk myself to death and dropped my bottle.
Almost against my will, my eyes traveled to the bar. Once fully stocked, it was now completely empty, without even empty bottles behind the glass panels. Ben had taken each and every bottle out of the elaborate wood bar and poured it down the sink. I had resisted the urge to protest and ask what was wrong with one drink every once in a while to relax.
Now I found myself thinking too much. I was not really used to the lack of alcohol - I had used it to dull my mind and that was gone now. Wanting to distract myself, I spoke softly, looking at Ben again, not really wanting to interrupt his thoughts, whatever they were, but doing so anyway. "Ben?"
His crystal blue eyes snapped open. There was no alarm in them, but you could tell he was alert despite the utter languorousness of his body. "Yes?" he murmured.
"How are we going to kill him again?"
His fingers, which had been absentmindedly stroking my hair even as he focused his attention on me, stopped moving. His body tensed subtly as muscles contracted, even though he didn't move. "This really worries you, doesn't it?"
I stared at him, my body becoming tense. My throat threatened to close and I drew myself closer to Ben almost without thinking, so our knees almost touched. Our faces were perhaps a foot apart. "What if you die?" I blurted.
He stilled completely and his eyes met mine. "There is that risk," he said softly. His hand went from the tip of my hair to the side of my head. He ran his fingers through my hair, his nails lightly brushing my head. I leaned into the touch.
"Tell me again," I whispered, closing my eyes.
I heard him shift closer to me. The hand touching my hair went down and around my shoulders while his other hand came up and started brushing his fingers through my hair.
He began. "First," he whispered in my ear, "we arrive early to the ball. I sneak in - no arguing, you don't know how to sneak."
I smiled slightly. We had had this argument before. I found myself losing every time.
"In the hallway the Emperor always enters through - as it leads directly to his throne - I plant bombs, after you bribe bored guards and use your status to get us in. I plant dozens of them, just inside the wall and underneath the floor. They're tiny so no one will see the holes and grooves they create as they burrow in. Then we leave and wait.
"We go to the ball, you and me. I go as your guest, since otherwise I can't get in. I disguise myself with the Force because otherwise I will be recognized - you remember, I served in the military of the Republic once? We wait until just before the Emperor comes. Then we leave to go to a balcony. As before, your prestige and wealth allows us to go unencumbered."
"We go to where you've already put the rifle," I said softly, reminding him and relaxing at Ben's ministrations despite myself.
"Yes. We go there. Though really ..."
"I'm not leaving without you," I interrupted, knowing what he would say. He was doing this for me - and perhaps partially for himself. If he died, I wished to as well. I sometimes imagined leaving the whole thing alone, going off with Ben to live in the sunset. Yet the desire for vengeance did not leave me.
He sighed. "The bombs explode. But they're too late. Palpatine has sensed the danger and gets out of the hall before they detonate. Then I take the rifle. He knows there's something wrong but he assumes it is because of the explosion. But it isn't - it is me."
I opened my eyes. Ben was staring at me deeply and he knew that he wasn't focusing as much on his words as he was on me. Our faces were inches apart.
After a long second, Ben speaks again. "I take the rifle. It is already armed and ready; and I fire."
I sighed. Neither of us speaks for a long moment and I find myself contemplating if I should kiss him.
He raised an eyebrow at me. "I know you miss the alcohol, the lack of thought it gives."
Moving before I even know it, I sit up. His hands fall away and he straightens on his side of the couch, giving me a calm, knowing look that just makes me want to slap him. My back is completely straight and I clench my fists for a moment, my lips pressing together tightly.
"You know," I said coldly after a moment, "that's damn creepy."
He raised an eyebrow again. "When I read your mind?"
I frowned, then turned away. "I never really did believe in that Force stuff, you know. It was all too strange and unbelievable - and I'd never seen a Jedi." I paused thoughtfully. "Though I had certainly heard enough."
I began to realize I had not really thought much of this before. How strange and unusual it is for someone to read your mind. I did not bother me before probably because I was always at least slightly drunk. Now my more cynical leanings were coming back to me.
Ben slowly sat up. "Would you like me to prove it to you? In some other way than reading your mind?"
Still uncertain if he could actually read my mind or just knew body language really well, I nodded. "Go ahead."
The couch jerked. My eyes flicked around and then I felt them widen in horror. I slammed myself into the back of the couch, seeking the solidarity it provided. My feet went to the couch as well, as I found myself frightened they would be hurt somehow. I panted and looked at Ben.
He was gazing at the floor, which was a meter lower than it should have been. The couch was floating well above the floor. He looked perfectly relaxed, I noticed resentfully, while I was trying to control my terror.
He stopped his surveying of his work and looked at me. "Telekinesis is one of the first skills learned as a Jedi initiate, though most of us didn't get good at it until we became Padawans."
"Oh," I said faintly, still trying to readjust to floating above the floor in an unnerving manner.
"I was a Knight," he said softly, still gazing at me. He looked reminiscent. "Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi."
Despite my fear, that got my attention. "Obi-Wan. That's your real name?"
"I never asked. I'm sorry," I said, feeling guilty for some reason. That name sounded familiar.
"Ben is as good a name as any other. I rather like it, in fact." He smiled. "I don't feel like that Obi-Wan character, anymore."
I smiled back uncertainly. He was so different and far removed from the person he had been, he didn't even want to be called by his given name anymore. I thought that sad. I could not imagine being so hurt by my life that I would throw away my name. In my mind, Dela and I were synonymous.
Finally, biting my lip, I asked, "Do you think you could put us down? I think ... your demonstration is done. Quite done and has proven its point."
He didn't laugh at my nervousness, though I thought he would. He just gazed at me with a soft expression, a strange wistfulness in his eyes. The couch slowly lowered the ground. I was thankful for that, since I didn't think I could have handled just being dropped.
Rather cautiously, I rose and left the couch. When solid ground - deck, whatever you wanted to call it - was beneath my feet, I felt my muscles relax. I resisted the urge to drop to the floor and turned around to face Ben.
"That name," I said. "It's so familiar. Were you famous?" I shifted on my feet, as my muscles seemed to want to celebrate being safe by twitching nervously.
He propped his head up with his fist, his elbow on the back of the bed. One leg swung loosely over the side of the couch. "In a way. You remember me telling you I was in the military?"
"I was well known for my strategies, my tactical ability in a fight. I was also a rather involved commander. I paid attention to where my ships came from as well as what they could do. You might have heard of me through your husband or his contacts during the war, or possibly afterwards."
That made sense. I nodded slowly to myself, thoughtful.
"Come here," Ben said, holding out his arms. He looked me over for a second. "You're bracing yourself, I can tell," he said, laughing. "Don't worry, I'm not going to lift you or the couch again."
Willing the nervousness out of my body, I walked over to him and sat down on the edge of it. Reconsidering, I pulled myself up into the couch. I looked at Ben and he wrapped his arms around me and spoke. "I love holding you."
I felt safe. I snuggled deeper into his arms and pushed back against him, wanting to feel his warmth - the safety that was always present when he held me. For a moment I contemplated letting myself drift into sleep. I felt utterly comfortable. I wanted to drift in that state forever; I knew it wouldn't last, of course, but I ignored that. For the moment, I was content, and that was all that mattered to me.
Doing the dishes, I found, was a very - family-like activity. Doing the manual work of taking each dish and making smooth, clean swipes with a damp cloth was strangely satisfying. Was that perhaps the reason woman were so often relegated the task? There was an odd sense of accomplishment in cleaning the dishes, having them set up all nice and clean. Not that I would ever say so to Ben.
I looked up from my position at the sink, to where Ben was. He sat by our broken dishwasher, trying to get it fixed and having no success after an hour of working on it. Apparently Jedi powers don't extend to the more mundane things of life.
I took his moment of inattention to study him. He had begun exercising again - katas, he called them. A series of set movements that translated into a fighting style; at least, that was how he explained it. He was also gaining weight and no longer had the gaunt look of before. He wore a loose white shirt and brown pants that were just tight enough for my liking.
He stopped what he was doing and levered himself up with one arm. His head swung around to look at me and his eyes had a distinctly bemused look.
I felt my face burn and quickly turned away back to the plate I was holding, scrubbing harder than necessary.
I heard soft laughter from behind me. I scrubbed even harder.
His voice came like a soft rumble. "Don't be embarrassed. I feel very complimented," he said, and I could practically hear his smile.
I finished scrubbing my plate and rinsed it off. I set it down to air dry. Then I dried my hands with a towel and turned to face Ben, my flowery dress swirling around my legs. I had put it on while in some strange mood. I leaned back and put the heels of my hands on the counter behind me.
Ben was working on the dishwasher again. He was half in, half out of it, on his hands and knees. Finally, after a few minutes of me having quite the view, he got out and turned to me with a rueful smile.
"Okay, I admit it. I can command a fleet but I can't fix the stupid thing," he told me, looking slightly embarrassed. He had been confident of his ability to fix it earlier. He sat back on his heels, hands resting on his thighs.
I laughed at his words. "Looks like we'll being the dishes by hand, then, until our next stop, because I certainly can't do it."
He cocked his head and stared into my eyes. Then a smile appeared on his face, widening into a grin. He held out a hand to me, grinning crookedly.
I took my hands off the counter and took the two steps to him, taking his hand in the manner of a lady. I knelt down, my dress pooling on the floor. He drew me closer with my hand and then wrapped his other arm around my back. I took my weight off my knees, putting my back to him and leaning against his chest. Then he wrapped an arm around my waist, to keep me there.
"I like this," he whispered into my ear. His other hand came up to my head and began to finger through my long hair. He did love my hair.
"What?" I asked, already beginning to feel myself slip into a drowsy happiness.
"Just - being domestic," he said finally. "Its so normal." I felt him sigh faintly, his chest rising and lowering.
"So do I," I said softly, wishing for that moment to last an eternity. I leaned back against him and closed my eyes. It felt normal to sit in my kitchen and just be held. But my own thoughts soon intruded on my peace as my mental meanderings of the past few days came back.
"Yes?" He didn't stop stroking my hair.
"Why?" He didn't answer and I hurried on, to make my meaning clear. "I was very close to my brother - especially after my husband's death. He was all I had left - when he was killed it was ... like the universe had betrayed me. And I find I can't stop myself from wanting vengeance." Then I waited, my own truth revealed. He knew the reason for my nearly all-consuming hate now.
Ben said nothing for a long moment. "I know what you've been thinking," he said finally, after a nerve-wracking minute. Of course he knew what I was thinking - that was why I didn't bother to ask aloud.
"It is not as if I am unwilling to do this," Ben said, his breath warm in my ear as I turned my head, still unable to see him but trying anyway. "I want vengeance as much as you, possibly even more. I, too, lost all my family to the Empire - to the Emperor. And it is not like I have not killed in cold blood -" he paused, his breath hitching. "Oh, Dela. When I escaped I killed every person I saw, whether they were my torturers or not. I wanted them dead - the only reason I did not turn was because I wanted nothing beyond that."
I put my hand over his, which rested lightly on his stomach. I felt the coarse hairs on his hand under my fingertips. His hand did not tremble.
"I want this as much as you. I do it for you, true - and I do it for myself, in some vain attempt to satisfy the hate I can't help but feel. I want my hate and my thirst for vengeance gone, and his death is only the way I see to do that." He sighed and now he did tremble against me, if only for a moment. "It is not the proper way to feel, I know that, but that fact matters little to me anymore."
I pried his hand away from where it held me. I grasped his hand tightly and squeezed my eyes shut. "I feel that way as well," I admitted softly. "But I don't want vengeance to be that which binds us."
"We are not bound by that," he said, his voice firm. "It is something we share - but not what brings us together." His hand tightened almost imperceptibly one mine. His other hand gripped my hair firmly, causing me no pain but with enough strength to hold me there.
"Then what does?" I reached with my free hand, to touch his face. I found a coarse cheek, which turned. His lips met my palm with such a gentle brush I barely felt it.
"Something even our hate cannot touch and consume - our love," he whispered in my ear. I felt my eyes sting with unshed tears and I didn't know why I wanted to weep.
"I want us to be together," I said faintly, opening my eyes and turning in his hold, to see his face. "Always."
I looked into his eyes, which searched my face as he spoke softly, holding my hand against his lips. His breath was warm and alive against my skin. "We will, Dela. Whether in life or death."
Our arrival on Coruscant felt strangely unreal to me. Neither Ben nor I went to the cockpit to see the approach but we both watched out of a side view port. For one thing, we hadn't wanted to interact with our pilot - the less he knew about us, the better. Admittedly, he had been ferrying us around for a while now, but I think he had seen Ben maybe twice the whole time.
The other reason was strangely sentimental on my part. I wanted to share the experience with Ben. I knew that Ben had seen the view many times before, as had I, but I felt that this time it would be unique, for it would likely be the last time we would ever see it.
From space Coruscant looks like its namesake: a jewel. I knew from a mostly forgotten history class that Coruscant was named for the jewels found there, Corusca jewels. And from space, it looked exactly like that. Instead of the normal blue-green of human habitable planets, it has a silver sheen from the buildings that cover its surface. Lights liberally dotted it, visible even in daylight in many cases. It was considered to be one of the most unique views of a planet in the galaxy and I had no problem imagining why.
I stood at the long, oval view port and Ben stood right behind me, his arms wrapped around my waist. My hands rested on his, with my head under his chin. Unlike the rest of the ship, this was not really meant for the passengers, having a hard floor and dull, gray bulkheads. It was a secluded area and not the best viewing spot.
It satisfied me, though. I saw other ships, already given clearance to land, go by us at sublight speeds as ships do when in system. I looked out and felt fear rush through my body. Quite suddenly, I didn't want to go through with it. Not killing Palpatine, not even landing. It seemed to suddenly hit me what we were going to try to do: kill the Emperor of the known galaxy.
I turned my head to my right, resting it more on his shoulder blade, and gripped his hands at my stomach.
"You're afraid," he whispered in my other ear.
I closed my eyes. "Let's not do this. Let's just leave, go to some distant planet the Empire hasn't even heard of."
My breath started coming quicker, quickly enough that if I didn't calm down I would start to hyperventilate. "What if it goes wrong? What will -"
"Dela." He let go of my waist, disengaging my hands from his gently. He took my chin and turned my face towards his. He looked into my eyes, and his own seemed suddenly dark with concern. Funny how they changed that way. Sometimes, in some light, they seemed almost green. "Dela!" he said more sharply, forcing me attention back to him. "What's wrong?"
"I'm terrified," I said bluntly. I pressed my lips together and willed my hands not to shake.
His firm hold on my chin turned into a gentle caress of my cheek. Callused fingers brushed my skin and went to my hair, pushing it over my shoulder. "Yes, I know. I can feel it. And it's normal." He gave me a slight smile, wistful and something else I couldn't identify. "Are you having second thoughts?"
"Yes. Maybe. I don't know," I said, shaking my head and licking suddenly dry lips with a dry mouth. I came up with one answer and immediately doubted it, correcting myself. My feelings shifted too quickly for even me to understand.
Ben, however, former Jedi he is, pinpointed it easily. "You doubt this will work. And you also doubt the rightness of it."
With that simple statement, I realized that what he said was true. He sifted through my confusion and found the truth. I had many fears, but as Ben said that was normal. My desire for vengeance still burned strong, but my determination wavered in self-doubt.
"What if," I began. I stopped, took a deep breath. Ben waited patiently, his focus on me without even a flicker of distraction showing. "What if we fail? Then it will all be for nothing. People have tried to assassinate him before - what makes us think we can do it?"
"The Force -"
"What of the Force? Did the selfsame Force guide you to take Vader as your Padawan?"
Ben let go of me so suddenly I literally staggered. His eyes shone with unshed tears and hurt. His fists clenched for a moment and he turned his gaze away. Then his eyes met mine, blue pools suddenly still again. "No," he said evenly, betraying no emotion. "My Master - my father figure, I suppose you could say - asked it of me, a dying request. Which I granted, foolhardy that I was." He breathed deeply. "But as I was saying, the Force does not tell me this is will fail; it says nothing. That means it is uncertain - it can fail, but it can also succeed."
"Oh," I said faintly. A dying request - and then that request goes and kills everything you live for. I could only think how horrible that would be, but it was really abstract for me. Finally, determined not to feel guilty, I spoke again. "And what does the Force say of the rightness of this? Of killing someone in cold blood? Is that evil?"
Ben's gaze shifted, not out of shame but out of tiredness. He shook his head slightly, not really a response as much as a reflexive action. "No," he said. "It says nothing of that. It doesn't work that way. There is the light side and the dark side - it is up to us to choose, and also realize what will lead you to which."
I leaned back on one foot and sighed. "And do you know?" I asked, searching his face. "What will lead us to which?" His face remained calm and composed, though it was not stony with repressed emotion - instead the calm seemed real, not a façade.
"Five years ago I would have said yes, that killing in cold blood leads to the dark side. That it is evil. But ... now I doubt that. Is destroying evil in such a way evil? It is different from facing him? I wonder, if I did face him, go to him with the intention of killing him, is that the same as killing him in cold blood, since I searched it out deliberately?" He shook his head and shrugged with a distraught, confused look on his face. "I don't know. I just don't know."
We stood in silence for a long time. Each of us thinking, me about him and death; him about only the Force knows what. Spaceships and yachts like our own - I realized I now considered my possessions as much his as mine, anymore, even after only a few weeks - passed us. Eventually, our ship turned, giving us a fuller view of Coruscant. I don't think he cared. I know I didn't. The ship bucked slightly as we entered the atmosphere. I suppose we should have strapped down for the landing but we didn't. Ben took hold of a ridge on the wall, where the blocks of the bulkhead met.
Finally, as the ship set down and the engines went off, I spoke. "You still want him dead?"
"Yes," he said softly, gazing at me with gentle eyes. His body was relaxed and loose, his posture natural.
"So do I."
A few minutes passed. Our pilot was probably wondering what we were up to but he didn't interrupt. I paid him too well for that. He knew to obey and to never disturb me. Before, it was for my alcoholism. Now it was for something different. After landing, he would leave the ship and not come back. However the future turned out, we wouldn't be needing a pilot.
Ben finally spoke, breaking the silence first, his words low and considering. "You think it will satisfy us? Do you think ... it will be gone and leave us alone?"
That it will not haunt our dreams? I thought. I took my gaze from the durasteel floor, different from the rest of the ship, and met his eyes. "I don't know if our darkness will ever be satisfied," I said honestly. "But maybe our consciences will be. If we can kill him, shouldn't we do so?"
"An offensive defense," he murmured, a furrow appearing between his brows as he glanced down at the floor. I knew what he meant. Palpatine deserved death and he would no doubt do many things more to deserve it if we didn't kill him. The Jedi believed in stopping evil to protect the innocent. To defend the innocent. An offensive defense, indeed.
He looked up and held out a hand. I didn't need a second invitation. I went to him and pulled me into a hug, his arms across my back radiating a heat that soothed me. I put my head on his chest and felt his heartbeat.
Our decision was made.
Getting to the Imperial Palace was hell. Getting into the palace was surprisingly easy.
Going to the palace, traffic and numerous security checks slowed everything down considerably. We sat in our neat, little hovercar that I had rented for our use and didn't go anywhere. After the first hour, the dark wood and ivory interior grew tiresome and I began to regret getting it. I was tense, nervous, and visibly trembling.
But Ben was there. He listened to my fears and gently explained the plan again and again. Get him in, wait, and get out with him. There would be no danger, he assured me. I nodded, convinced but not really feeling any better, and held onto him. His presence calmed me. I kept my hands around my arm, my head rested on his shoulder.
I wanted to remind myself that he was real - alive.
When we arrived at the Imperial Palace, I breathed deeply and got out, Ben giving me a hand.
Ben was dressed as servant - my personal servant, to be exact. I knew that given he was male and I was female, most people would make assumptions about our relationship. I knew it was useless to deny such things, so I didn't try. I dressed him in a royal navy blue in a stark, military-like cut. I thought he looked dashing in it, and could easily imagine him in a real uniform. I didn't say so, of course, but from the quick, amused glance I knew he had caught the thought anyway.
I was dressed as a lady of my station should be, and what was necessary for the role I would be playing. I wore a dress that was quite expensive, even for me, in a professional kind of style. My hair was put up for once, in a tight bun with a few loose strands for femininity.
It startled me how easily I fit into my role. Even as a wealthy wife I had not been overly interested in parties. Only after my husband's death did I do such things - mostly in the pursuit of good alcohol.
The palace was huge. Especially for a crowded planet like Coruscant. Halls were fifty feet wide, laden in gold and high quality stone. Rooms were elegantly furnished in natural, real wood and intricate designs. It was remarkably decadent.
For all of its beauty, though, there was something about it that bothered me. It took an offhand remark by Ben to make me realize why. There wasn't any lightness. All the colors were varying degrees of dark and muted. It gave the place a moody aura.
After actually getting on the grounds with a few well placed bribes and 'owed favors', I tried to mentally get in my head exactly where the ball would be held. Of course, I had studied a map beforehand but I had never before realized how difficult it was to connect a map and the reality of it. Ben knew where it was, I had no doubt of that, but he could not been seen leading me. That would have been out of character.
Suddenly, an image of the palace entered my mind. A visual of the map was gently laid over it. And somehow, the image didn't seem quite ... mine. Turning my head so I could see Ben, who walked to my left and slightly behind me - he had remarked it was strangely like being a Padawan again - I gave him a tightlipped smile of thanks.
Finally, I stood before a room with arched, elegant doors. A guard stood before the doors, looking big and intimidating in his black and tan uniform. He glared at me sternly, eyes tracking my movement and Ben's, but not moving otherwise.
I gave him a bright smile. "Hello." I waved my arm regally, keeping my wrist limp. "I need to get in there." I looked at the doors.
He looked uncomfortable, being suddenly met with someone not intimidated. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I can't allow that for security reasons."
"What?" I cried shrilly. I did a good imitation of a sputter. For no apparent reason, I thought quite suddenly of the ridiculousness of the situation. I was like a spy in some holodrama, being sneaky and looking good at the same time. I stifled the sudden urge to laugh. What would my former friends think if I disappeared? Or if I died ... "His Highness doesn't trust one of his most loyal subjects?"
I think it was wonder Ben didn't snort at my ridiculous words.
"Um, I'm sure that's not the case, ma'am," the guard said, shifting his feet. Yes, I thought. I've got him now. "Just standard, ma'am."
I glared at him frostily, my arms stiff and at my sides. "This is ridiculous."
"Ma'am, please. Why is so important that you get in there anyway?" he asked, dark eyes narrowing, not in suspicion but in irritation.
"My dress," I replied loftily, lifting my chin and raising my eyebrows in a determined manner.
"It must be coordinated, you fool. My dress and the color scheme of the ballroom!" I said, in a tone that indicated the reason was quite obvious. It struck me how silly it was that some women actually did worry about such things.
"Oh," the guard managed, looking more confused than before.
I shot a quick glance at Ben. His head was down slightly, his eyes intensely focused on the guard. Was he trying some kind of mind trick? He told me he couldn't do that to get us in, since it would require him speaking to the guard - and the guard would repeat what he said verbatim, a classic indication of mind control. Not a good thing for anyone to be able to catch onto.
"Well," the guard said, focusing again, "I still can't allow you in."
I huffed. "Well! Hospitality indeed. I thought you were supposed to have that for guests of His Highness." Technically true - it said something to that effect in the invitation I had gotten. I paused. "If I don't get in, I would be a laughingstock to the other ladies," I said, leaning forward meaningfully. "I'm sure you can be compensated for your kindness," I added, even more meaningfully.
The guard opened his mouth, and then closed it. Would he take the bribe? Many Imperials did - it was certainly more common than Jedi mind tricks and in this case, would attract no attention. The guard hesitated and I tensed, waiting breathlessly. "All right," he said, eyeing me. "I'm sure in your generosity you would compensate me before entering His Highness' ballroom."
"Of course," I said smoothly, having prepared - indeed, expected - that demand.
"Though," the guard added, "I don't see why he has to go along," he said, gesturing at Ben.
I froze for a split second, trying to figure out what to do. Then I smiled and grabbed Ben's arm, bringing him up and close to me. He smiled at me circumspectly, knowing what I was up to.
The guard watched us.
"You see," I said, "my servant is - most essential to what I wear." Then I winked.
The guard blinked, then smirked as he caught the hint I had dropped. He now thought Ben was my lover. Though we hadn't actually done that yet.
"Ah," he said knowingly, "I see." He looked at the both of us, no doubt picturing things I really didn't want to know, then returned his gaze to me. "I would require extra compensation, of course."
"Of course," I said readily. Reaching to my side to an inside pocket, I took out a chip and handed it to him. He looked down at it and smiled. He then slipped it into his own pocket. He turned away from the doors, opening one with his thumbprint. I was privately amazed at how easy it was to get in - would it occur to no one the damage a person could do?
Or perhaps it was as Ben said, that my reputation and my dead husband's in Palpatine's court allowed us access. My husband had been trusted, after all - and anyone who had made it through all the other checks would surely be safe. Not too unreasonable, but nevertheless it showed the incompetence of the Empire.
We made it safely into the ballroom. As he closed the door, the guard looked at Ben while he thought I couldn't see and winked.
The door shut with a mighty clang.
Ben started grinning so widely it must have hurt. He looked like he wanted to laugh. "You do realize," he said, "that now the guard thinks we're in here for the ... thrill."
"I'm glad you're so amused. And it worked," I said, most definitely not amused.
"I'm not questioning your methods," he said, holding his hands up and grinning.
I couldn't help but smile back, somewhat reluctantly. "So you can do it? Get to the hall you need to from here?"
He nodded, glancing around and taking in as much of the ballroom as possible. He also gazed at the balconies. "Yes, and the balconies as well. I'll just have to make sure I'm not seen by the guards outside of them, in case they enter in a routine check."
I wrapped my arms around myself and nodded, my nervousness returning. "All right."
He stepped close to me and cupped my cheek. "It will be fine," he said softly, and kissed me soothingly. Then he stepped away before I could do anything. He cast me a grin again and moved away, heading for the hallway, presumably. The entrance was well hidden.
I stepped away from the door, so I would not be in direct line of sight. If necessary, I supposed, I could make appropriate noises if the door opened.
Now alone, I studied my surroundings. The ballroom had very high ceilings - not a big surprise, with the balconies. An upraised area stood at one end, opposite the doors. A large, ornate throne was upon it, done in gold and red, traditionally colors of royalty. The floor was hard tile, completely smooth and set in an intricate, geometric design that covered the entire floor.
I rubbed my arms, feeling cold. The palace kept the air much cooler than I was used to and being in my light, silver dress wasn't helping.
I began to think about Ben. Mostly worried, I should say. He had gotten through all the security checkpoints without trouble, but I still worried he would be caught with the small bombs on his person, and the parts that would eventually become a rifle. I had no idea how he had managed to take all that and not look strange in his clothing but he had. Practice, maybe?
I whirled, my heart pumping wildly. But it was only Ben, standing a few feet away. "Done?" I said faintly, mentally calling myself a fool. I hadn't heard Ben approach, what if someone else had? What if the guard had checked on us?
"Yes," he said simply. He kissed me again, deeper this time and taking me into his arms. Finally, after a few long, dizzying moments, he let go and grinned at me as I licked my lips. "You look well kissed," he said, not winking but somehow giving that impression.
I rolled my eyes, but my heart sped up.
"Let's go," he added, more softly and seriously.
"Yes," I said quietly, taking his arm. "I'm ready to get out of here."
He didn't state the obvious: we would soon be coming back.
We walked in the gardens of the Coruscant Park, relaxing after our stressful afternoon. And relaxing for what would inevitably be a stressful night. We both wanted some measure of peace before we went back to the place that could spell our deaths.
Though Coruscant is basically one big busy city, it does have places of beauty. Art museums, libraries - and parks, such as the one we were in. Even the city itself could sometimes be beautiful, in the way the light always shone and endless lights twinkled like stars.
The park was designed to make you forget you were on a place like Coruscant. Expert, fake ceilings looked convincingly like blue skies. The shadows of trees dappled the ground, soft with rich soil and grass. Bushes were sprinkled liberally, with no particular pattern, in not only green but also reddish hues. It was like painting come to life. But no painting had ever had such fresh air, a faint breeze, and the chirp of unidentifiable animals.
Ben was enjoying it. His head was tilted back just slightly, a slight smile playing across his lips. His eyes were closed, but he had no difficulty in walking. He wore a white tunic made of light material and simple brown pants; the colors he always tended towards. One hand held mine and the other was relaxed and loose. His entire body spoke of looseness. Carefree.
I smiled, the act coming easily and almost seeming to free me, like I couldn't help myself. My flowered dress - a white and pink frilly thing that I had changed into before coming to the garden - was barely felt on my skin. The sun was warm against my face. I was content to let the warmth sink into my bones.
I couldn't remember ever feeling so happy and lighthearted. It was like I was walking on clouds, my very spirit lightly floating above it all and taking my body with it.
My thoughts turned elsewhere quickly, as they normally do, though they weren't dark or depressing, as they sometimes were. I was - contemplative, an unusual state of mind for me, as I have never been one to analyze myself. Perhaps the lack of alcohol had something to do with it; I had once majored in philosophy, after all.
I wondered silently if we could simply stay here for a short while and leave. No killing, no violence. Just going on, to our own happiness and leaving the rest of the galaxy and its problems behind. It would be so easy.
Yet I knew we would not do so. There was something in the both of us that would not let this go. I knew that if we left without trying, some part of us would forever be unable to be still, no matter how happy we were. Was that some small amount of peace worth our lives?
Perhaps it was simply our stubbornness. Our inability to let things go. I knew why Ben was that way - whether he was a Jedi now or not, he still had the raising and childhood of one, and to against such ingrained things is no easy task - had he even wanted to, which I doubted. The Jedi way was a good way, and perhaps the only one for Ben. For myself, I couldn't explain it. I was no rebel, no revolutionary. I was not a warrior.
Perhaps I was to meant to be.
I sighed and closed my eyes against the warm glare of the sun. A small wind ruffled my hair, making it twine around my neck.
Ben's hand caressed mine, fingertips brushing against my knuckles. I thought of his ability to hear my thoughts. He squeezed my han and I laughed, opening my eyes. His eyes were open and his head was turned to face me, a little smug smile on his face. I whapped him on the arm - and not very gently. He grinned mischievously and rubbed the spot where I had hit him.
It was peaceful.
I knew that wouldn't last long. We had mere hours before we went to the ball, which could very well be the place of our deaths.
But, for the moment, it didn't matter.
The ball began after dusk. Night was lit by harsh, artificial light and thousands of aircars converged on the Imperial Palace. Traffic was kept under control, though, unlike earlier in the day. Imperial forces diverted the normal lanes of traffic for the duration of the ball. It didn't take us long to reach the ballroom, even with the numerous security checkpoints, which were in much more abundance then before. I truly began to understand Ben's wisdom in bringing in our ... equipment ... before the ball.
True to my role, I had dressed in something coordinating with the ballroom, if rather vaguely. I wore a simple, darkly colored dress with a skirt that could be easily lifted for running. My footwear, hidden beneath my dress, was also made for running. Ben was in something similar to what he had worn earlier, except now it was black. With both of us in dark, muted colors without anything elaborate, we would hopefully be left alone as being below the station of those at the ball. It was all very calculated on my part, and to my surprise Ben was impressed by my forethought.
My forethought didn't make me feel any better when we entered the ballroom. It was as I had remembered it, with lighting that I couldn't determine the source of and the strange geometric design on the floor. Opposite the large, ballroom doors was the throne. If everything went according to plan, Palpatine would not even get that far. The people inside were dressed elegantly and expensively, as this was a formal affair.
It was a nerve-wracking experience. We were among hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women whose sole purpose here was to flatter the Emperor, to gain some advantage. I didn't know if they were loyal to Palpatine but they were willing to use him to serve their own ends - though Ben told me that they would most likely lose anything they had gotten from Palpatine. The Emperor was vicious and cruel, and cared for nothing but his own power.
Managing to keep a pleasant expression on my face, I snatched a non-alcoholic drink as a servant went by. I casually took a sip from the delicate crystal and glanced at Ben. He was eyeing me with an approving look. For a second I didn't know why, then I realized it was my action in not taking something alcoholic. I could feel myself relax slightly, my posture becoming less tense and my face not quite so strained.
"So," I said to him in a low voice, after casting a searching look around us. "How long, do you think, until Palpatine comes?" A perfectly normal question to ask, in case anyone overheard.
"Not long, my lady," Ben said softly, also still in his role. He bowed slightly to me as he spoke. He played the role of servant well, always being subservient.
I looked away, dissatisfied that it was still so far away - it was at least another hour. In one way, I never wanted the time to come and in another, I couldn't wait to get it over with. Fortunately, in the two hours we had been present few people had deigned to talk to me, and I had seen nothing of my former friends. I was fairly certain that because of my complete lack communication with them they had finally given up on meeting with me again, after sending numerous messages asking me where I was. I was also fairly certain it had not been terribly difficult for them to give up.
Absently searching the crowd and trying to mentally distract myself, I realized something. All of the visitors were wealthy, influential people, which was not surprising. But a rumor I had heard was proven true to me when I saw that there wasn't a single non-human among the lot.
I was drawn from my thoughts when the hand resting against the small of my back subtly pressed down. I looked at Ben, who was staring at me tensely. He lowered his eyes. "My lady."
"What is it?"
"His Highness is coming," he murmured in a low voice, "in perhaps fifteen minutes."
"Ah." I could think of nothing else to say.
"Perhaps my lady would like to prepare?" he asked gently.
"Yes. Of course," I managed, nodding and giving a grateful smile. He gave me his arm and I took it, keeping my chin high.
It took us several minutes, but we maneuvered our way out of the ballroom with none but the guards realizing we were leaving. The guards, of course, ignored us completely. I pretended to be slightly drunk and Ben became the patient servant, used to dealing with such things. It struck me as ironic that, in a way, he was used to it.
When we were out of the ballroom, we walked down the main hall to a little side one, tucked away so neatly it went nearly unseen. It was a maintenance corridor, dull and gray, and how we would get to the ballroom's balconies unhindered. It also had other corridors leading to other places in the palace. Within the elegant hallways and rooms of the Imperial Palace, there was a whole other world, of servant corridors and such.
We began walking up one of those corridors when we heard voices.
We looked at each other simultaneously with mirroring expressions of panic. I knew my eyes had widened and my heart was beating rapidly. Ben's eyes had dilated and he was panting. Then he blinked and shook his head. He grabbed my arm and yanked me back a few feet. There was small doorway that I had not seen - because it was indented into the wall. Understanding immediately, I squeezed into the small space with him. Hopefully whomever the voices belonged to would pass by without seeing us - or not even pass by at all.
The space was not wide, less than a meter, and I hoped that the dark colors of our clothes would blend with stark, dark gray of the walls and doors. I was held up against the door and Ben was pressed against me, facing me. We had moved so quickly that was the position we had gotten in. I was sure we both preferred to have him facing whatever danger there might be. His eyes were focusing in the distance, however - he couldn't see what was happening, but I was sure he was using every Force ability he had to sense what was going on.
I looked over his shoulder. There were a dozen Imperial Guards, stormtroopers assigned to the palace. They were dressed in the normal, awkward white armor and were lounging casually, taking their time as I had rarely seen stormtroopers do. But that wasn't what caught my eye.
They held a prisoner. He was roughly Ben's age, I guessed, and hung limply between two of the stormtroopers. He groaned audibly. He had clearly been beaten, with his face bloody and bruised. Lank, dark hair fell into his face, disguising most of his features, but he looked thin and pale, with a muscular frame.
My eyes flicked to Ben. He was definitely aware of what was happening. His breath was quickening and panic was leaking into his eyes. His head was lowered, his eyes not meeting mine and his jaw was clenched. The hands that still held my upper arms tightened their grip.
"Shh," I whispered. "It's all right." Shifting, I took one arm out of his grip. He permitted it, not moving, his grip becoming slack. I put my hand up to his face and caressed his cheek.
"So what do we do with this one?" one of the guards asked another, shifting his rifle from hand to the other impatiently, the motion making a hard slapping sound. He moved his weight from one foot to the other, a clear indication of his boredom. I hoped that boredom would make his - and his friends - awareness lacking.
Another guard replied casually, his voice muffled by the helmet. "The Emperor wants him personally," he explained. "But he doesn't need to go there just yet, and we've already walked halfway through the palace." The stormtrooper, higher of rank than the others if I was reading the colored badge on his shoulder correctly, walked over the prisoner, who hung between two of the other guards that had not spoken. "Do you?" he asked, and kicked the half-kneeling man in the side.
When the blow hit with a distinct cracking sound, Ben's entire body flinched and he swallowed convulsively.
My mind whirled, searching for an idea of what to do. Was this what Ben had gone through? This careless cruelty and disregard? Inspiration finally hitting, I said to Ben, very softly so as not to be heard, "He isn't you, and if we do this Palpatine will never get his hands on him."
Ben shook his head slightly, not in denial but with horror. "He's Force-sensitive," he told me in a strained tone. His face was tight and his eyes stared blankly at the door we were pushed against.
I cursed quietly in my mind, hoping Ben wouldn't hear me. "Does he know we're here?"
Ben abruptly leaned closer to me, no longer quite facing me with his head by mine and his breath warm against my neck. "No, I don't think so. I didn't shield you, but ... he was a failed Initiate, I think. A child who never went beyond the basic training."
Yes, I thought. Make him be analytical. Distant from his emotions. "So his abilities will be less?"
"Less controlled, anyway," Ben whispered back, his body just perceptibly relaxing. As long as he didn't sympathize too strongly - put himself in the poor man's place - I thought he would be all right.
I nodded slightly and then we waited. I could think of nothing more to say and Ben grew tenser as time went on. As he had time to think - and remember.
The guards didn't linger long. They soon began walking again, after taking their short break, and dragged their prisoner with them. I wondered if Palpatine merely wanted him for his personal amusement - a Force-sensitive to torture in place of an actual Jedi. The man moaned piteously and then he was dragged out of sight, the last of the guards following. The corner of the wall that protected us from view also obscured my vision. I felt sick at the thought of what would happen to the prisoner but forced it down, not wanting Ben to pick it up. He trembled and I knew he was going to fall apart any moment. His whole body was shaking now and his eyes were completely distant.
He also began to whisper meaningless - disturbing - things. "No, please, no no," he whispered faintly, almost a moan. "Ani ..."
"Hold on," I whispered into his ear fiercely, gripping his hair in painful hold. If anyone had walked by us, they no doubt would have thought they were seeing lovers in a passionate embrace. I found the stray thought darkly amusing.
Then the scuffling of feet, which had slowly been getting fainter, stopped. "Did you hear that?" a guard asked, in the harsh tone all stormtroopers had from their helmets.
Ben was whimpering. I had no doubt now that he was having a full flashback, like the one he had had in my kitchen. Hopefully this one would be quieter, I thought manically.
"Ben," I said hoarsely, daring to speak.
He was hyperventilating.
"It isn't happening. Please, Ben." I was desperate now, my mouth dry.
One of the guards, out of sight: "I didn't hear anything."
And another, "I thought I did, maybe. A person, I think - and what would someone be doing down here? I don't remember there being any patrols." Just the faintest hint of suspicion in that voice.
I grabbed Ben's head and forced him to look at me. The terror and agony in his face made me want to cry. I felt tears slip down my cheeks but I didn't loosen my hold. "Get a hold of yourself," I hissed. "Act like a Jedi, dammit, or are you a weakling?"
His eyes slowly focused on me, shining with hurt and - fury. "How dare you?"
Daringly, I continued, knowing the risk I was taking but determined to end this once and for all, my own terror and anger fueling me. "Look at you, standing here and trembling!" I whispered, mockingly. "Some Jedi you are!"
I knew the guards were only a few dozen meters away.
Ben continued to stare at me with the pain and rage in his eyes.
"Control," I said simply, my voice still low, though I truly didn't know how I managed it. "Control."
He nodded, his breath hitching. I caressed him now, giving praise. My fingers traced his eyebrows and lips, marking what was mine and giving comfort the only way I could. His eyes fluttered half shut, but snapped open at the sound of a guard.
"Should we take a look?"
I dug my fingers into his scalp. "Focus."
His eyes closed and his breath evened in only a breath or two. Then, slowly - so slowly - his eyes opened again. They were calm, like a sea gone suddenly serene.
His eyes were suddenly a brilliant azure. I looked at them, mesmerized. His body relaxed and his posture changed subtly - leaning forward, almost, like he was talking to someone. And he murmured, very softly, "No, why bother?"
Then, another guard spoke, probably the leader of the little squad. "No, why bother?"
There were a few murmurs of agreement and then the scuffling of boots continued. Growing fainter.
Ben looked at me, smiling softly and sadly. His hands went to cup my face. I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him, heedless of where we were. "Thank you," he whispered into my ear.
I simply let a soft, trembling breath. My body was shaking.
He drew me away from the wall slowly, turning his head to check that there was no one there. There wasn't and I was sure he had checked with his powers anyway. He held my hand in mine and I was amazed at the warmth and gentleness of it. I was just amazed - amazed we were still alive.
We continued on.
The Imperial Palace was designed in such a way that there sometimes seemed to be endless corridors. According to Ben, part of the reason for the design was so that secret passageways could be more easily built. So that was why we were able to enter the ballroom without actually using the main entrance.
The balcony was not large. It had enough to room to fit maybe six people, sitting comfortably. When we were last here, earlier in the day - that it was the same day amazed me, since it seemed an eternity had passed - Ben had hidden the high powered laser rifle and messed up the opener of the doors, so they wouldn't open. Since it was just before the ball, Ben knew that the Imperials would decide to simply cordon off the small, frequently unused balcony.
So much of our plan was guesses, depending on assumptions. Until that moment, I had not clearly realized that and now it frightened me. But I pushed away my fear, ignored it. I was strong, strong enough for this - I knew that now, had proven it to myself in the corridor with the guards. When I was weak, Ben was strong; when he was weak, I was strong.
We truly did need each other.
I watched him against the backdrop of the balcony. The balcony itself was decorated in dark, red tones. Very rich and luxurious colors, with plush seats. But it was Ben's profile that held my eyes, as we knelt unseen by the solid rail, peering over its edge. A tiny furrow had appeared between his brows as he knelt and unfolded a long object from a fabric that blended with the décor. He was calm, steady and determined. His hands moved with sureness and knowledge as he put the broken pieces of the rifle together.
It soon lay, complete and whole, on the floor. It was long, and to my inexperienced eye, appeared to be nothing more than a long metal tube with a scope and a trigger attached. It looked ... harmless. But it wasn't and I knew that.
It was a weapon, designed to kill. And that was what it would be used for.
Ben stared at it for long moments, his body crouching but relaxed, in a strange way. He held himself very still, his muscles completely unmoving. He hardly seemed to be breathing and his eyes had an alert light to them, eerie in the relatively dim illumination of the supposedly unoccupied balcony.
His head slowly turned to face mine, eyes serene. "Dela," he murmured, eyes flicking over my face, my eyes and my cheekbones, everything.
I looked back at him, feeling awkward in my dress. I was tense and frightened, wanting to curl up into a ball, but instead I reached out with my hand and lay it against right side of his face. His eyes fluttered and he leaned into the touch - just slightly.
It seemed unreal. Like I was floating through the events, time passing with me not quite sure how.
I was abruptly brought back to reality with Ben's next words. "There is no time for second thoughts, Dela. Not now."
I blinked rapidly and inhaled. "I know," I breathed out. My hands kneaded my dress and I nodded again, thoughts confused and fast.
"What are you thinking?"
Odd, that he wouldn't know my thoughts. But perhaps it was because I could hardly understand them myself. A thousand things flickered through my mind in that instant, thoughts of death and life, love and solitude. Of justice and revenge.
But there was nothing left but to act. "I love you," I said simply, trying to convey all that I felt in those words. Don't, I wanted to say - but didn't. It was too late for words. Don't do this in hate, I thought. The fact was, I loved him too much to lose him to what was happening. To what we were doing.
"I don't feel hate," he whispered softly to me, placing a hand over mine, which caressed his face. He shifted his head slightly and kissed my palm, a dry and warm touch. He kept his eyes on mine, a reassuring gray. "I have you - how could I feel anything else?"
We should have left. We should have.
A voice, deep and oddly triumphant, floated over to us. He announced the Emperor's arrival, which could only mean that Palpatine was coming down the hall. Other voices were raised and there was the small thunder of clapping, in a false welcome. Wasn't all joy in this Empire false?
Ben's hand fell from my cheek as he became distracted and distant from me. He turned, alert and the tiny furrow once again appeared between his eyebrows. He grabbed the rifle and held it by his side, ready. His gaze found mine, for just a moment, and he spoke. "I love you," he whispered.
Then came the explosion. It literally rocked the ground, throwing me from my crouching position to my backside. I sat there on the carpeted floor, somewhat stunned, even though I had been anticipating it. Ben hardly wavered. He rose slightly, on the balls of his feet. He didn't look at me.
I could hear the shocked cries of the hundreds of people below. Surprised and vaguely angry. To me, from above, it was like hearing a thousand harsh whispers forming into one. I breathed deeply and my heart beat wildly. I didn't turn to look at what was happening - instead I looked at Ben, watching his every move. I watched him even as he watched those below, unable to tear my gaze away.
It was eloquent in every line of his face. A tensing at the explosion, then a relaxation, which meant events had followed the plan. His gaze was slightly distant, as it always was when he touched the Force. He cocked his head and fell forward to his knees, focus changing from distant to intense. Palpatine was present.
Unwillingly, I turned to look, peeking over the barrier that kept us hidden.
Below us was the ballroom floor. Beneath the crowds of people I could see the complex design on the floor. People, all human and richly dressed in deep, dark colors, scattered. They moved from place to place, aimless. Panic and fear was clear in the movement of their bodies, but some remained calm and unmoved.
And, of course, there was the section of the floor, across from the main entrance, that was raised higher. I could see the dark stone it was made of, and the elaborate throne seated upon it. On one side - my side, the left side - stood a dozen Royal Guards, armored in blood red and looking as dangerous as I knew they were. They formed an arrow, and in that arrow walked the Emperor.
Though I had seen him on the holonet many times, he didn't look the same as I had expected. He was old, his hair white and short and his frame bent, but in a strange way. His face was wrinkled, but not like that of simple aging, but that of decay. Like his very flesh was rotting. I could not see the color, but his eyes were menacing and had an air of triumph and arrogance.
Arrogance. He believed the assassination attempt to have failed, not knowing that it had only begun.
In the corner of my eye, I saw Ben raise the rifle. He shifted it to his shoulder, aimed and fired. I waited in nervous anticipation as Palpatine moved forward.
Despite common thought, Ben had told me, lasers of the type he was using were invisible. Nothing would be seen coming out of the rifle - which was why the scope was necessary. Not that I thought Ben needed it, particularly, not being a former Jedi the way he was, but we had wanted to be sure. It amazed me, in the panic of the moment, how calm and thorough we had been about the whole thing.
Of course, I saw it when it hit Palpatine. The menacing glare was replaced with shock as his eyes widened and his body fell back, a burnt spot appearing on his stately dark blue robes. Whatever powers he had possessed had not defended him in that moment of overconfidence. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. But before he even hit the ground, I knew Ben had fired again, because the Emperor's body jerked again, almost seeming to convulse.
The silence that was only in my mind was broken by the screams of those below, and my own wild thoughts.
To give them credit, the Royal Guard reacted immediately, firing into the crowd and the air, forming a protective barrier of shots, while at the same time checking the Emperor's condition. I just sat there and wondered - about life, about what would happen next - about everything.
"He's dying," Ben said simply, letting out a short breath, his body still motionless. He lowered the rifle and looked at me. His blue-gray eyes were wide with shock and strange, wild joy. "Dying," he whispered, his voice breaking. His hands, holding the rifle still, trembled just visibly.
I gripped him by the shoulders and kissed him. I kissed him hard, more out of a desire to feel that he was real, that it was happening, than any real desire. Sobs escaped my throat. Dying! Fierce joy ran through my veins, alighting my senses with fire.
I let him go fiercely and abruptly, mind still singing. One of his hands left the rifle and came to the back of my head, holding me. He gently kissed me again, and then released me. We both looked down, leaning forward to see better. My hands gripped the rail until they were white.
The guests had realized what was happening. They looked like wild animals in fancy dress from above, running who knew where. Some stood in shock and a few had fainted dead away. But most of all they stared and looked.
As did we.
From our position up above, we had a good look at what was happening, even with the solid wall of Royal Guards. Imperial Guards rushed into the ballroom from the main entrance and several smaller, side ones, as frantic and unorganized as the guests were. Some looked up high, helmets scanning. Ben and I held back slightly, hiding behind the barrier of the balcony, able to see without being seen.
Palpatine lay writhing on the ground, little flecks of something that looked like blue lightning coming out of him, appearing to escape his very body. His guards did not touch him. But he was still alive, though barely. The lightning increased slightly and I felt more than heard Ben's breath catch.
Then it faded, becoming weaker. Palpatine's face was grimaced in determination in those few moments, then I saw growing despair in those soulless eyes.
"He can't do it, he can't heal himself - he can't hold himself together," Ben babbled, staring, breath coming out in harsh pants. He understood what was happening, even if I didn't. I saw the flecks of lightning began to increase, like he could no longer hold it in.
I grabbed his wrist and yanked, rising to my feet. Heedless of the Guards below. He got up with me, an automatic motion. "Yes," he said, in answer to my frantic instinct. "Let's go."
And we ran down hallways and stairs, past those in shock and beyond those that came after us.
But the last thing we saw as we did so was the crowd of guests preparing to rush the Royal Guards, faces lit with fierce joy. The Royal Guards braced themselves. Then those once loyal citizens rushed forward at the Royal Guards and the damned man they protected.
But we were safe. At last.
I wondered for a long time what happened to the failed Jedi initiate that we had seen being taken to Palpatine. I wondered if that was what it was like for Ben, being a toy for a deranged and evil man, and I was glad we had saved at least one person from that fate. Palpatine had hated all that were even loosely affiliated with the Jedi, it seemed. Ben hoped that he had managed to escape in the ensuing chaos of the Emperor's death. So did I.
We had barely made it out of the palace, with the dark lightning released at Palpatine's death chasing us, along with the guards who ran after us. We later learned that all of those inside of the ballroom had been killed at Palpatine's death. We had left just in time. Once out, though, getting to the spaceport where our ship was became much easier. Ben had set the ship on standby, the engines running. He had grabbed the controls and we had lifted off immediately, before the news of Palpatine's death had even broken.
That first night, free of our demons, we hadn't celebrated. We rejoiced at his death, but we didn't throw a party. His death was like a simple release - an exhalation of breath held far too long. We had gone to bed and held each other, too in shock to do anything else. Yet the presence of the other was comforting for each of us, and it was a thing we were not willing to let go.
The state of Empire was soon in disarray. Palpatine had declared no heir and now the Imperial Governors and various members of the Senate vied for control. A rebellion had already risen, given hope in death. I hoped they succeeded. Perhaps we would even watch, from afar.
Now we were on Alderaan. Six months had passed and I had cherished every moment. I had cherished holding Ben's hand before the official and saying yes - cherished finding our home. Beyond even the time before the deaths of my former husband and brother, I was at peace - and I shared that with my new husband.
The breeze ruffled my dress and my hair, throwing it away from my body. I opened my arms to it and gazed out. Below me was the small village on Alderaan that we had chosen to live in, its white, adobe dwellings picturesque. I breathed in, just feeling. The emerald green grass was prickly but yielding beneath my bare feet, my simple tan dress soft against my skin.
The sun was setting. It created a beautiful array of colors, and it occurred to me that I had never consciously realized how many colors a sunset could have. Every shade of color, each a degree of different beauty. It was a wonderful sight, and I lifted my chin to see more of the sky, watching the colors fade and stretch.
Gentle hands touched my waist, and before I knew what was happening arms had encircled me, holding me tight. I leaned back against Ben's chest, closing my eyes, and let my arms fall to my sides. His rough cheek settled against my neck and I felt him kiss me. "Hello," he breathed.
"A warm welcome," I murmured softly, still gazing at the sunset.
His body vibrated against my mine with his laughter. "I would hope so," he replied softly, amusement clearly coloring his tone.
I smiled and sighed, truly content, as I had not been for so long. Ben's hands shifted from my waist to settle on my belly, still flat. I placed one hand upon where his rested, and the other lifted to the side of his face, holding him against me.
"I love you," he whispered.
"I know," I said softly. And I closed my eyes to listen to what I couldn't hear, but whose presence comforted me -my husband's heartbeat, and my child's, who still lay within me.
At Palpatine's death I had thought it was over, but I was wrong. It was just the beginning - the beginning of a new life.
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